The BBC is back with its second series of His Dark Materials; join Caragh Medlicott for weekly reviews of each new episode.
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
His Dark Materials doesn’t want for villains – from soul-sucking spectres to rebellious angels – there’s plenty of lurking evil to keep the protagonists on their toes. Still, in episode 6 – aptly named ‘Malice’ – we’re reminded that Wiliam Golding was really onto something with Lord of the Flies. Wayward children, sans parents, can be a scary thing indeed. In this case, it is Angelica (Bella Ramsey) and her pack of fellow Cittàgazzen kids who are breaking down Will and Lyra’s door. They’re out for murderous revenge following the loss of their older brother; the spectres got him after Will took possession of the subtle knife, and now the children are left bereaved and totally devoid of adult supervision. Luckily for Will and Lyra, the witches arrive and save them in the nick of time. It’s a good thing, too, death by children would have been an unfortunate start to series two’s penultimate episode.
It seems that HDM’s ensemble characters have been inching closer together for quite some time now. At last, everyone is in Cittàgazze; the witches are through the ‘glitch’, Lee Scoresby and Jopari hover above the city in a hot air balloon, Mrs Coulter and Lord Boreal stalk the abandoned streets, as does a solo Dr Mary Malone. And yet, hardly any paths intersect. The witches sweep up Will and Lyra only to begin a slightly aimless journey. With both the knife and the alethiometer back in their safe hands, the only real quest remaining is the search for Will’s dad, (who is frustratingly just above them in Scoresby’s balloon), and even that mission is quickly derailed by Will’s wounded hand. Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) confirms that Will’s still-bleeding fingers pose a serious, life-threatening risk (such is the power of the knife which inflicted the injury). Despite this information, Will’s life never feels genuinely at stake and the result is a slightly grumpy tug of war between Will and Lyra; Lyra wishes to take Will back to her world where the witches can more effectively heal him, and Will wishes to continue his search for his father. The driving force of the last episode’s heist has now all melted away and there’s notable slack in its absence.
Meanwhile, Dr Mary Malone seems incredibly poised considering she’s wandered into a strange new world. There are more than a few peaceable shots of her walking around the Mediterranean-esque streets of Cittàgazze. It speaks to the quiet likability with which Simone Kirby plays Malone that these scattered scenes are so enjoyable. When she encounters the downtrodden Angelica and her sister, she offers to take them along on her journey. Looking much less scary now that they’re not surrounded by other enraged children, Angelica’s hopeful wish that Malone might look after them and ‘make them take baths’ adds a depth of undercurrent and feeling to their abandonment. Malone’s personal adventure is barely underway, but so far it would seem that this subplot is the most obvious diversion from Phillip Pullman’s original second book; it’s likely a wise choice, too. Anyone who has read Pullman’s source trilogy will know that its most surrealist moments are unlikely to work as well on the screen as they do on the page.
It’ll come as a surprise to no one who has watched HDM thus far that episode 6’s most dramatic moment comes courtesy of everyone’s favourite supervillain, Mrs Coulter. She and Lord Boreal are nervously walking around Cittàgazze in search of Lyra, and – as we’ve seen a few too many times – adults don’t fare well in a city with a serious spectre infestation. Yet, when they do inevitably encounter the lurking spectres, we quickly realise who wins in the evil ranks. Mrs Coulter cannot only stop the spectres from capturing her soul, she’s able to control them – her outstretched finger seems to reference Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. This muddied religious iconography throws up a whole load of questions about the state of Mrs Coulter’s soul; does she have one? If not, is that why her daemon doesn’t talk? Is that also why she’s able to be separated from her daemon in the first place?
By the end of the episode, the action has been raised from a low simmer to full bubbling; poisoning, storms and incoming war abound. ‘Malice’ may have fallen into the setup-finale-maneuvering so common to penultimate episodes, but at the very least, episode 7 looks ready to cut down on the travelling and begin with the face-to-face action. With a prophecy of biblical proportions lying in wait, the fun has just begun.
His Dark Materials is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.